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April 1, 2002

New book reveals conflicted racial identity among white youth

By Jennifer McNulty

For white youth, coming to terms with being white in an increasingly diverse U.S. society can be a painful and contradictory experience marked by feelings of guilt and privilege, relief and persistent prejudice.

UCSC sociologist Pamela Perry studied students at two northern California high schools. Photo: Jennifer McNulty
In her new book, Shades of White: White Kids and Racial Identities in High School (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2002), UCSC sociologist Pamela Perry reveals the complex feelings white youth today have about being white, and she identifies powerful forces in our nation's schools that reproduce racial inequality.

"As we become a more diverse society, we can't afford to raise our kids in racial isolation," said Perry, an assistant professor of community studies.

"We need to understand the formation of racial identity in multiracial settings and what's happening in schools that contributes to racism. In this day and age, schools need to nurture a generation of young people able to live and work together with dignity and respect."

Perry spent two and a half years immersed in the culture of two northern California high schools to explore the development of racial identity among white youth in schools with very different racial balances. The first school, which she calls "Valley Groves," is a suburban school where 83 percent of the students are non-Hispanic whites. The second, which she calls "Clavey," is urban and racially diverse, with 54 percent African American students, 23 percent Asians, 12 percent whites, and 8 percent Hispanics.

In presenting findings based on participant observation in the schools and in-depth interviews with 60 students, Perry paints a portrait of racial identity formation among whites that varies dramatically by proximity to students of color. She asserts that merely interacting with students of different races and ethnic backgrounds in a multicultural school is not enough to counter the forces of racism that persist in American society. Even in the diverse school, academic tracking and multicultural programming reinforce powerful divisions along racial lines, said Perry. One white girl, disturbed by the negative racial stereotypes and prejudices she held despite life experiences to the contrary, described her confusion and despair by saying, "There's this devil in me."

Ultimately, Perry concludes that the formation of white racial identity is a textured, complex, and contradictory experience. Being white requires young people to examine their privileged positions in U.S. society, grapple on a daily basis with feelings of guilt and relief, struggle with competing personal and social values, and come to terms with the nation's legacy of racial injustice, about which students of color routinely remind their white peers, Perry observed.

At Valley Groves, Perry found white students were so steeped in the everyday "normalcy" of white dominance that they experienced what Perry calls a "cognitive gap" when asked about their racial identity. "They expressed egalitarian and antiracist beliefs, but they were so isolated from people of color that they didn't really have a sense of racial inequality," said Perry. Of critical importance, these students reported being uncomfortable and scared around people of color.

By contrast, for whites at Clavey, racial injustice and white privilege were not abstract ideas. They saw on a daily basis the mistrust with which black and Hispanic kids were treated, and they saw the ways in which they, as whites, benefited from racism. "They saw ongoing forms of discrimination all around them," said Perry. "They understood the need for public policy to address these inequalities."

Perry also writes of white students whose experiences of being white "took disturbing turns into exasperation, guilt, and sometimes victim-blaming discourses and 'racist' self-images." Whites at Clavey reported having their racial prejudices confirmed at school, where students of color were resegregated by academic tracking policies (although whites made up 12 percent of the school population, they accounted for more than 80 percent of the enrollment in accelerated and advanced-placement courses).

For students struggling with race issues, tracking reinforced racial stereotypes. "White students came to embrace the hierarchy of academic ability, subscribing to beliefs that they'd earned their place by 'working hard' and that students of color were 'lazy,' and came from families that didn't care about education," writes Perry. Similarly, multicultural programming that spotlights racial and ethnic groups while ignoring people of European backgrounds reinforces notions of "otherness," said Perry.

Perry concludes that the effects on white students of racial isolation versus diversity made a compelling case for desegregation and integration. But tracking policies and multicultural programming must be reformed to increase opportunities for students of different racial and academic backgrounds to work together as equals toward common goals. Otherwise, like the white students at Clavey, whites in diverse communities--neighborhoods, schools, workplaces--may actually be less racially tolerant and open-minded than those living in racial isolation.


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